The author of nine books, Roy Morris Jr. can't name his favorite. "It's sort of like asking, 'who's your favorite child?'" he says. So it's a good thing that the Southern Lit Alliance Barnett Prize for Local Distinguished Author — which he just won — is based on the collection of one's literary works.
Morris has always loved literature, but he entered the writing world in a different capacity. After spending nine years covering news and politics for the Chattanooga News-Free Press and then the Chattanooga Times, he decided to obtain his master's degree in English, with a concentration on 19th Century American literature.
That focus would extend beyond his diploma. Morris' published books bear titles like "Gertrude Stein Has Arrived" and "The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War" — which, if hard-pressed, he might call his favorite in not so many words.
"In it I was able to combine my two main interests, which are Civil War history and American literature, and to tell the really touching story of Whitman's selfless service as a volunteer in the hospitals. Of all my books, I think that's the one that is the best realized, start to finish," he says.
Here, in his own words, Morris shares his personal arc.
I've always been interested in the lives of authors as a way of understanding why and what they wrote. Literary biographies are my favorite type of book to read and to write.
In my own work, I like to focus on the intersection of writers' work and the times and history they were living through. Despite what some literary critics have maintained, I don't believe you can truly appreciate a work of art without knowing the background of the artists themselves.
One of my books that is receiving a lot of renewed interest now, during the current political season, is "Fraud of the Century: Samuel Tilden, Rutherford B. Hayes and the Stolen Election of 1876." I first became interested in that topic as a boy, when my grandmother (who was what was known then as a Yellow-Dog Democrat) kept referring to President Tilden and the underhanded way the Republicans stole the election from him.
One of the things I try to do in my books is to find a way to connect sympathetically to the subject. Readers can tell instinctively when a writer doesn't like or respect his subject, and I can truly say that in all nine of my books, I have liked, or at least admired, all my subjects, whether it was a no-nonsense Union general like Phil Sheridan or a career politician like Samuel Tilden or an Irish-born dandy like Oscar Wilde. Ambrose Bierce, who was known as "Bitter Bierce" for his acerbic personality, actually made me laugh out loud every day when I was writing about him. We share the same sense of humor.
In all my books, I've also been surprised by some minor character who leaps out at me unexpectedly: Mark Twain's middle daughter, Clara; Oscar Wilde's first love, Florence Balcombe; the Kiowa Indian chief Satanta; Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein's partner. If a writer likes the people he's writing about, it will come across to the reader.
And what would be the point of writing a book about someone you didn't like or admire? You wouldn't be doing anyone any favors.
My newspaper background, starting on my high school newspaper, The Reveille, at Brainerd High School back in the late '60s, trained me to write quickly and on deadline, without a lot of mulling and second-guessing. I actually think I'm writing better now than ever, including — for the first time — a lot of fiction. I've certainly had a lot of time to do so during the quarantine!
Unlike a lot of writers, I actually enjoy the act of writing itself.
I just follow my instincts and interests, and my agent in New York, Georges Borchardt, helps me narrow my focus to topics that actually might sell. The literary market is getting much more narrow and selective, so it's a question of finding a subject that hasn't been done too much or too recently.
I'm working on a short novel now, but I'd also like to do another literary/historical nonfiction book. I've got a few ideas, but nothing definite.
Although I'm a fairly shy individual, during my career I've made a number of public appearances, which have all been nerve-wracking but ultimately rewarding. My televised appearance on C-SPAN's "Booknotes" with Brian Lamb was a particular thrill.
I also got to spend a couple nights with my wife, son and daughter in Samuel Tilden's old mansion in New York City, which is now the home of the exclusive National Art Club. That was fun, even if my son Phil and I are convinced we heard a ghost one night.
And of course, it is a real highlight to receive the second annual Barnett Prize for local writers, since there are an unusual number of really good writers in Chattanooga, many of whom I know personally.
Looking ahead, I'd like to publish some fiction and write another nonfiction book or two. We'll see.